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It's Raining Potatoes

March 01, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

"Let the sky rain potatoes," cried that old smoothie Sir John Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." "Let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves,' hail kissing-comfits and snow eryngoes." All these things were considered aphrodisiacs in Shakespeare's time, which just goes to show how ideas change.

Mind you, the potato that Sir John considered the food of love was the sweet potato, not the French fry-type potato. Kissing-comfits were candied nuts or spice seeds, perfumed to sweeten the breath.

As for eryngoes, they were the roots of Eryngium maritimum, otherwise known as sea holly, a thistle-like blue-green plant with seriously sharp-edged leaves and stems. It grows in brackish inlets and on sand dunes all around the seacoast of Europe, and nowadays the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. as well. Another species of sea holly is often planted as an ornamental in this country. Still another relative is culantro, a cilantro-like pre-Columbian herb that is still used in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Sea holly stems, like the stems of many plants (even tumbleweed), can be gathered when young and cooked like asparagus. The roots have a pleasant aroma and have been used to flavor boiled vegetables. In Shakespeare's time they were generally candied and eaten by themselves or thrown into pie fillings.

So it seems the common thread running through Sir John's wish-list of weather-borne aphrodisiacs is sweetness, which is still thought to be romantic. And so is "Greensleeves" by some people, though it doesn't have such a great beat and maybe only Mistress Quickly would ever dance to it.

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